Monday, July 7, 2014

The Two Brothers

Two years ago, two brothers enrolled at the alternative school where I worked. Colin and Ken, at 16 and 15 years old respectively, had just come back from spending two years in the Dominican Republic. They were now living in a foster home in the Bronx away from their birth parents. During the years they spent in the Dominican Republic, Colin and Ken were in and out of school, but mostly out, working on their family's farm as free labor. Beyond the trauma of separation from their birth parents, Colin and Ken experienced a significant amount of trauma with their birth parents. They were two teenagers who had already lived a lifetime.

Silent with a dark sense of humor, Colin kept quiet during the school day during most of his first year. His entrance test scores placed him in classes at about (or slightly under) grade level. In those classes, Colin excelled. During his first year in this alternative school, Colin accumulated credits, earned rewards based on academic excellence, and was touted as "a natural leader." Teachers couldn't help but laugh at his sarcastic comments. He was a model student.

Ken was a different story. Younger, louder, and visibly angrier, Ken was a "larger than life" personality in school. Where Colin's anger (and untreated pain) was mostly passive, Ken's anger was aggressive. Ken vandalized school property, picked fights, and demanded attention from peers and adults. He was also significantly behind Colin in terms of academics - he read below a 4th grade reading level and as a result, was placed in remedial, non-credit bearing (can't give academic credit to courses designed to catch you up to grade level) English and math courses over his first year in the school to catch him up.

Over the course of their first year, both Colin and Ken flourished in different ways. Colin prospered academically: earning a significant number of credits relative to his peers and passing the mathematics state test (the Algebra Regents). Ken also grew academically but his biggest developments were personal: his outbursts lessened and he learned to take constructive criticism from adults for his behavior.

Between their first year and their second year, Colin decided to join a summer leadership program through the school with some of his peers. Ken, being in love with video games, decided to stay at home and take care of his foster brothers for a small allowance.

Something happened that summer that changed their trajectories. After his summer leadership program, Colin started getting negatively influenced by a small cohort of students already known for their bad influences. They introduced him to drugs and distraction and within a matter of weeks, Colin's behavior changed for the worse. Ken tried to talk to him about it, but being the younger brother, his concerns were not only pushed aside, but often answered with violence.

When their second year started, things were notably different with Colin. He was coming to school later than Ken, even though they left the house together. Sometimes he came to school under the influence of alcohol and sometimes under the influence of marijuana. Sometimes he took his anger out on Ken by punching him in school or stealing his money to buy weed. Social workers and teachers were involved in their case throughout the year, but Colin's fall was inevitable. He was arrested on his 18th birthday for smoking marijuana on the streets. While he only spent a night in jail, it was clear this phase wasn't a phase at all. By the end of the school year, the two brothers had traded places.

Ken outperformed his brother significantly in that second year. He passed the same state test his brother did the year prior. He obtained an internship with an edtech start-up through a connection with a teacher. He obtained a logo design project for a local entrepreneur in New York City through another connection. Ken was still loud and spastic, but he was sweet.

At the end of the school year, I took Ken out to eat as a reward for his excellence in academics and socio-emotional growth. I congratulated him on his progress and told him how proud I was of him. I told him he was actually on par with his brother in terms of credits and path-to-graduation. He looked down at his plate for a long moment and grew heavy-hearted. Finally, he said while fighting back tears, "I don't know what to do about him [Colin]. He's lost. I'm his freaking brother. He protected me, but now he won't let me do the same. I need to get out of here and I might have to do it without him. I fucking hate Colin for making me do this alone."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Everyone in That Room Wrote Something

Proctoring school-wide exams is by far the most unproductive activity for teachers.

For alternative school students who previously haven't been successful in school, we tend to make testing worse by being overly strict during these sessions. No talking. No music. No walking in the hallway. No food. No drinks. No gum. No smiling. No personalities. And no thinking. Oh, but do your best. Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanks!

When I'm proctoring an exam, I do play some music on low to fill the silence in the testing room. My students do not like silence. They're not used to it, and so it unsettles them. If we as educators want them to succeed, we should test our students on their terms since it's content we think is important. They don't have a choice in what they get to learn in this country, so let's meet halfway. A little bit of Ray Charles isn't going to hurt anybody. It might actually keep the student who finishes early from distracting others. Or it might keep the student struggling to remain motivated and finish the exam in the room. You never know.

Earlier this week, I was proctoring an exam that required quite a bit of writing. The test was modeled after a standard NY Regents: multiple choice, short answers, then an essay. For those of us who have made it out of the system successfully, this is standard operating procedure. For my students however, the essay is the final boss in a video game that you can't beat without cheats. It's just not going to happen. During tests like these, many students complete the multiple choice, write a few sentences for their short answer questions, and then try to escape without an essay. They have every right to leave, we can't really stop them. I can't just lock my door until every student writes an essay, but that doesn't mean I can't compel them in my own way.

"Yo Mista, I'm done, where do I turn this in?" Ali asked. Ali is a bright student at my school, particularly in mathematics. I've had Ali for about a year and a half as a math student. On the NY Algebra Regents this past January, he scored the highest of all students, so I know his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Writing doesn't come second-nature to Ali, so he has a tendency to give up quickly.

I shot him a smirk. "Not so fast wise guy, let me make sure you finished everything." I flipped through his test and sure enough, he was trying to get by without doing the essay. It's my fifth year of teaching, and I still can't understand the logic of not finishing a test. You sat through the whole exam and you know it counts towards your grade. You know you won't pass this test without this essay, so why did you even come? It never ceases to amaze me. But alright. I'll play your game kid.

"Bro, really?" I gave him the so-called "teacher look."

"Honestly Mista, I ain't doin' that essay. He got me mad tight this morning." Ali revealed.

"Really? So it's not because you hate writing, it's because your teacher got you upset earlier? And your way of getting him back is by failing. Forcing him to teach you this class again next semester. Yeah... that'll show him."

"Nah.... it's not that...." Ali was slipping. He could see I was about to win. It helps that he respects me too, so he has a tendency to listen to me for more than five seconds. This sweet kid bought me a fucking cake when he found out about his Regents score, so I knew I had leverage in this situation. I knew I could talk it out and at the end of the conversation, he'd be writing that damn essay. Unfortunately, I also knew I'd have to have this same conversation at least five more times over the course of the next half hour as there were other students in the room who'd probably try to do the same thing. I had to make my point a bit more theatrical.

I held Ali's test in my hand as I walked over to my computer. I quickly Googled a picture of Frederick Douglass. I found many. I turned on my SMARTBoard.

"Everyone look up. This guy, right up here. Frederick Douglass. He fought tooth and nail to get his freedom when he was a slave. He learned how to read and write in secret, then wrote a motherfucking book about how people at the time didn't want Blacks to learn what he learned. Many people in our country at the time believed reading and writing was for Whites only."

I paused and shot a stare at a few students who I knew were going to try to get away without writing. "Ali, look at these pictures. You see? Good. Now take this test back, write a kick ass essay, and never forget how hard people had to work in this country to have the opportunity to write an essay."

"Wow... you dead be right though. Aight, Imma try Mista. You dead be hurtin' my feelings sometimes, but I know you know it works." He giggled.

I can't promise Ali's essay was good. I can't even promise if it made sense, he wrote something. Everyone in that room wrote something.

DISCLAIMER:
This blog is a space I use to jot down some of the craziest shit I do and say in my profession. Please don't take this post to mean the following:
(a) Teachers "save" the minority children of this country. They don't need "saving."
(b) Posting pictures of heroes from America's darkest times will motivate all children. It won't.
(c) I am this frank and blunt with every student. I'm not. I build relationships, then leverage those using my personality and humor to get what I want.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Reading Faces and Words

It's about thirty minutes into the period and I'm circulating around the classroom while my students work on practice problems. To the untrained ear, it sounds like chaos. It's not: it's just at-risk teenagers working. They may be cussing, throwing things, and loud, but they're working. They're struggling, but they're working.

"Yo Mista!"

"Mista! I need you for a sec."

"Mista, can you come here?"

"Yo Mista, I called you like ten minutes ago!"

I spin move around a desk and get to Brandy, who I think called out "Yo Mista!" first. I get to Brandy and sit down next to her. She shows me her paper and points at the problem she's working on. She doesn't ask anything. She doesn't ask to clarify something. She just points. You're not going to get me kid. I know this trick. "So?" I ask her.

Brandy, like most of my students, is trying to gauge my reaction to her work. She's trying to let my facial expressions tell her whether she's right or wrong. She knows if she asks, "Is this right?" I'm going to ask, "Have you checked your work?" or I'll say, "It's a quiz Brandy, I can't tell you, duh." Brandy doesn't read at grade level, but she reads faces and body language better than most. In fact, this is something almost all of my students do really well.

As I scan her paper, I maintain my poker face. After, I look right in the eyes and say, "Brandy, you know this won't work on me. You can't go through school just reading your teachers. It's not going to help you on the state exams."

"Mista, Imma be on my bullshit when it comes to the Regents, just tell meeeeeeee."

I'm already walking away as I smile. "No."

"Yo, fuck this shit!" Thirty seconds later, I raise my head over to peek at Brandy's paper and she's finally using the check method I taught earlier to see if she's right.

Over the past five years in casual conversations, my students have revealed so much about how they've managed to get through classes using these tricks. Ronald told me his 5th grade teacher would grimace every time he had the wrong answer circled on his paper. She used this coded language throughout the school year and when it was time for Ronald to sit for his 5th grade state exam, he knew he was in the clear because he fixed every question she grimaced at when she walked by.

Annabelle confessed that she knew every time her history teacher didn't like what she had picked for a multiple choice answer because anytime she marked an incorrect answer, he would say, "Make sure you're confident in that answer." He typically didn't say anything when Annabelle picked the correct answer, and so she used this to her advantage and passed. Annabelle reads at a lower than a 6th grade reading level.

Carlton, whom I've written about here, is quite the expert on asking leading questions to get teachers to give away the answer without really giving away the answer. Carlton, like most of my students, knows that teachers want students to do well on assessments. He figures out just how well by constantly asking clarifying questions. They start vague, and then get more and more specific. Every time he raises his hand, he he has a big smile on his face. When he asks his question, his expression changes to super serious. Carlton sets the nice-guy-who-just-wants-to-be-right trap very well.

Some of the students I've mentioned actually believe teachers care more about how well students do on assessments rather than how much they learn. That may not be true across the board, but it does say something. In reality, gullible teachers like the ones my students trap exist and like a cunning used-car salesmen, our students are quick to take advantage of the suckers. These idiots are definitely one of the causes of under-skilled elementary schoolers making it to middle school and so on.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for my students, my face nor my emotions get in the way of my teaching. I would rather annoy the shit out of my students with sarcastic responses than tell them the right answer. The right answer doesn't matter. Great educators shouldn't (don't) care whether their students can correctly factor a difference of perfect squares [or insert any other irrelevant topic from your content area here]. Great educators care about the education process: watching that light bulb go on when an idea is understood.

I could care less if my students delete 90% of the content they learn in algebra once they earn those algebra credits. I really just want them to gain confidence and learn how to think comfortably when life gets uncomfortable.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

High Fructose Corn Syrup

"They're calling this the Bible of effective instruction!" my former principal excitedly announced four years ago in front of his entire teaching staff at the beginning of the school year. He was talking about Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a ChampionIn my five years of teaching, four have always started with school leadership enthusiastically distributing copies of this book. In short, Teach Like a Champion outlines 49 techniques for inexperienced teachers to become "master teachers." Before I take a shit on the movement this book has created, I'll say this: Teach Like a Champion does aptly summarize what any teacher should do at the minimum. It's by no means a recipe for championship teaching, but rather a list of tools all teachers should be comfortable using when appropriate. The "championship" teaching happens when those 49 techniques are coupled with passion, personality, grit, intuition, and improvisation skills. 

My "beef" isn't with Teach Like a Champion or Doug Lemov. It's with principals, school networks, education consultants, private education companies, Teach for America, and other influential presences in education who have decided that reading this book will transform energetic and inexperienced 22-year old first-year teachers into Jaime Escalante (see also here). It's gotten so popular with everyone (except teachers, of course), that some principals are even using specific language from this book to evaluate teachers. So instead of being evaluated on presence, content delivery, execution, and technique, some unlucky bastards are being evaluated by shit like Technique #8-Post It (be sure your students know your objective for the day by posting it on the board). No shit, Sherlock.

Imagine a doctor wrote Treat Like a Champion, in which rookie doctors are advised to "diagnose the patient" and "check vital signs." All straight-forward and routine, but repackaged and presented as revolutionary. Real doctors and anyone else significant in medicine wouldn't allow that book to take off. The entire situation sounds ridiculous, but it's happening in education and it's devaluing the teaching profession. Teach Like a Champion (and other books like it) are trying to whittle down the major ingredients of a master teacher into a "you can do this too" checklist. They then dangle this list in front of unfulfilled, bleeding-heart types who eat this shit up and believe they can be great and change the world if they only embrace these golden techniques. 

Sadly, these suckers learn much too late that greatness can't be broken down to small, digestible parts and sold to the masses. As a species, human beings have this tendency to want to break everything that's great or perfect down into a science. "How can we scale this?" Fuck you. Scale that. I don't believe everything can be quantified. What baffles my mind is that even the big swinging dicks on Wall Street agree with me: they have a term for something they can't completely quantify: synergy. Investment bankers typically deem synergy as the primary reason for a corporate merger, i.e. the combined company (the whole) is greater than the two separate companies (the sum of the parts).

Other industries have also learned a lesson similar to what education hasn't. Just about a year before Doug Lemov wrote Teach Like a Champion, Michael Pollan wrote In Defense of Food, a book that blew the lid on food science. In his book, Pollan juxtaposes America's nutrition obsession with our nation's increasing obesity rate. This nutrition obsession created a desire to answer the question, "what really makes food great?" As a result, we funded scientific studies to deconstruct food in order to understand its vital components and ultimately, figure out what makes that particular food "healthy." The findings of those studies drove food producers and processors to begin replacing real food with "food-like substances" fortified with vitamins and minerals. These processed foods were marketed as healthier but most importantly, they were cheaper to make.

As a consequence of fortifying processed foods with the "good" components of healthy food, Pollan notes that America's health got worse. As it turns out, nutrition in foods is optimal when the whole food is consumed, not simply its individual components (e.g. eating an orange vs. taking vitamin-C supplements). The conclusion being there's synergy in eating real, natural food that you'll never obtain from eating crap injected with vitamins. The same goes for teaching.

If America demands "champion" teachers for its students, then we need to completely overhaul the teacher certification process. It's too fucking easy to become a teacher in this country, which makes it difficult to ween out people who would be ineffective teachers in the classroom. Teacher certification programs should develop the whole teacher with content knowledge, apprenticeship, and teacher techniques. If however, America wants to settle for cheap ineffective sheep, then we're doing the right thing by treating Teach Like a Champion as the supreme teaching doctrine. For my sake and our nation's sake, I hope we choose to revamp teacher certification because I'm really tired of working with teachers who try to quantify everything because that's the only thing they took away from their three-month Teach for America summer training.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Social Media Tells Me on Snow Days

After Tuesday's epic-polar-vortex-snow-storm-pacalyse, NYC schools stayed open on Wednesday only to post the worst attendance numbers (47%) this school year. Luckily my school's network decided it'd be best to close Wednesday, so you can only imagine how incredibly lucky I felt.

The following morning, I basked in all the glory of a snow day by sleeping in a full two hours (crazy I know). Before fully waking up, I rolled over and grabbed my phone to check Facebook (shut up, you do the same). My feed was mostly dominated by teachers' angry posts about Mayor DeBlasio's decision to keep schools open. Those suckers, I thought.

Here's a snapshot of my teacher friends' social media posts from Tuesday night/Wednesday morning:

  1. Mayor DeBlasio, are you kidding me?????
  2. I knew it. NYC schools will be open tomorrow.
  3. Where is my Taun Taun? Mayor Dibloombergsio says that ny public is open.
  4. Not sure how I'm going to drive to work tomorrow, let alone get out of my parking spot... 
  5. Looks like I better prep for all ZERO kids who come to school tomorrow!
Of course, my teacher friends (and really, all NYC teachers) were in the right to bitch about DeBlasio's decision. Most of my teacher friends teach in high-needs neighborhoods, and attendance is usually shit anyway. In my experience, the majority of students from high-needs neighborhoods use whatever excuse they can to not come to school. I believe keeping schools open (particularly in these regions) during unsafe conditions actually devalues the school and demoralizes the few students who do actually come in.

Anyway, here's a snapshot of my former/current students' social media posts from Tuesday night/Wednesday morning:

  1. O nah, it's ova for skool 2mrrw
  2. n*gga snowwwwww you hearddddd
  3. good thing ma smart ass stayed home Tuesday too! 5 day wknd YA BOIIIII
  4. whos gettin smacked tonite!?!
  5. all i wanted was your attention but i couldnt even have that  <\3
Okay, that last one has nothing to do with anything, but it's so emo I couldn't help myself. Sorry kiddos, don't friend your teachers on Facebook: we'll use anything to brighten our day.

Now to the point: our country's education reform movement is obsessed with the idea of extending the school day and the school year; however, it's completely pointless if the school day and year are extended to only do the same things we're doing now (classroom instruction driven by irrelevant standards, then tested).

If we're just throwing more of the same at our students, then in the eyes of a student, school isn't a valuable tool to get smarter and change your life. For any teacher reading this: think about the last two weeks of a semester. Think about all of the students who suddenly care about their grade and demand you give them make-up work, despite their attendance, which has caused a large gap in content knowledge. Some of those students actually do complete the make-up work and redeem themselves. What does that mean? That means we don't fucking need 36 weeks (180 school days) of drill-and-kill classroom instruction. If it's important enough, kids will get their butts in line and learn the hardest shit in the shortest amount of time.

Instead of fretting about X days remaining in the school year, with Y standards left to teach, we should keep the "classroom" calendar short and sweet, maintaining school's "sense of urgency" and emphasizing how important time really is. Simultaneously, revamp the school calendar to include large chunks of internship programs, expeditionary learning trips, summer intensives, and other useful programs to engage students. Let them figure out what they want to learn first. They'll then come to us and demand, "teach me!" Then, the next time we have a psuedo-snow day, at least the students will feel like they've missed something they need.